When Augustine was born there, in 354, the town of Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras, in Algeria) had existed for 300 years. It was one of the many nuclei of egregious self-respect, which the Romans had scattered all over North Africa: it called itself `the most resplendent' council of Thagaste.
Since the first century B.C. an `economic miracle' had transformed the hinterland of North Africa. Never again would prosperity be extended so effectively over so wide an area. By the third century A.D., the high plains and valleys of the plateau — the old Numidia — where Augustine was born, had been planted with grain, criss-crossed with roads, settled with towns. Even farther south, beyond the Aures mountains, a chain of forts guarded the boundary between intensive cultivation and its absence, on the very edge of the Sahara. In that age of affluence, the inhabitants of one area, of Thysdrus, the modern El-Djem, had set up in the middle of the open plain, an amphitheatre almost the size of the Colosseum at Rome; but the most typical memorial of this `boom' period comes from an inscription at Timgad, a town far to the south of Thagaste, in what are now the desolate highlands of southern Algeria: `The hunt, the baths, play and laughter: that's the life for me!'
By the fourth century, the original expansion had come to a sinister halt. Schemes for building had stopped, the old public monuments had begun to crumble, `shanty-towns' as chaotic as the winding lanes of the bazaars of an Arab town, had come to press in around the chequerboard avenues of the old Roman cities. The wealth of Africa had moved away from its former centres. Instead, forests of olive-trees had come to cover the hillsides of southern Numidia. Augustine could work all night in Africa, his lamp stocked with plentiful supplies of the coarse African oil: it was a comfort he would miss during his stay in Italy. This oil came from little men, from villages which lacked the swagger of the Roman towns. These sturdy planters, suspicious of the outside world, living in tight-knit communities, whose habits had changed little since pre-historic times, had become the arbiters of the prosperity of Africa: `Here lies Dion, a pious man; he lived 80 years and planted 4000 trees.'
Augustine's Thagaste was perched on a plateau at the edge of this new Africa. It was administered from Carthage; but it had belonged to the old kingdom of Numidia. Our imaginations are dominated by the Africa of Carthage, the Africa of the Mediterranean coast. Augustine, however, grew up 200 miles from the sea, and 2,000 feet above it, cut off from the Mediterranean by great forests of pine, by high valleys of corn and olives. As a boy, he could only imagine what the sea was like by looking into a glass of water.
This was a world of farmers. A town was a symbol of civilization; it was not a unit distinct from the countryside. For all their pride, these little Romes would have had populations of only a few thousand, living off the land in exactly the same way as the present inhabitants of a Spanish pueblo or a S. Italian township. It was on the land that the pleasures of life were sought by those who could afford them. On mosaics we can see the great country-houses of the African Romans: two-storied villas, surrounded by paddocks, fishponds, ornamental groves of cypresses. Their owners are shown, in the flowing robes of the age, hunting on horseback, and receiving the obeisance of a subservient peasantry. These men were the patroni, the `protectors' of their community, in town and country alike. As they strode through the forum with their great retinues, the poor man was well-advised to rise and bow deeply to his lord.
Misery also went with the land: the misery of `bent backs', near starvation, brutality like that of Tsarist Russia. A decade before Augustine's birth, Southern Numidia had witnessed a peasants' revolt, tinged, significantly, with a combative form of Christianity. Augustine, as a respectable member of a Roman town, was shielded from this misery. Indeed, as a schoolmaster, and later as a bishop, he was one of a very small class of men who had no direct contact with the land: he could even afford to talk nostalgically about gardening, to regard agriculture as `bracing exercise'. Tied to his desk in later years, he could only harbour distant memories of the long days in which he had roamed this countryside, hunting birds.
To be a full member of a Roman town, Augustine had to be free and civilized: he did not have to be rich. His father, Patricius, was a poor man, a tenuis municeps, a burgess of slender means. Augustine will grow up in a hard, competitive world, among proud and impoverished gentlefolk. A classical education was one of the only passports to success for such men; and he narrowly avoided losing even this. His early life will be overshadowed by the sacrifices his father made to give him this vital education: Patricius and his family had to go poorly-dressed; he had to scrape; for one disastrous year Augustine found himself condemned to give up his studies at a pleasant `university-town' at Madaura (or Madauros: modern Mdaourouch) to run wild in primitive Thagaste. His cousins were less fortunate: they remained without a proper education; and would have to face the poverty and boredom of a narrow world of unlettered squireens.
Yet Patricius could claim, perhaps as a relative, the patronage of a local grandee, Romanianus. Romanianus would go frequently to Italy to defend his property at the Imperial court. He would return to Thagaste to show his power by giving wild-beast shows, and by patronizing young men such as Augustine. He would receive speeches and statues from his fellow-townsmen. He could expect titles and administrative positions from the Emperor. In the very fluid world of the fourth century, luck and talent could close the gap between a Patricius and a Romanianus. By 385, Augustine will be a professor of rhetoric in Milan; he will be in a position to toy with the prospect of a rich heiress and a provincial governorship. At that time he might well have reflected, as another successful African of his age had done: `I grew up in the country, the son of a poor, uneducated father: in my time, I have come, through my pursuit of literature, to live the life of a nobleman.'
For men like Patricius and Romanianus did not think of themselves as `Romans' for nothing. It is most unlikely that Augustine spoke anything but Latin. Between the exclusively Latin culture into which he had been so successfully educated, and any pre-existing `native' tradition, there stretched the immeasurable qualitative chasm, separating civilization from its absence. What was not Roman in Africa, could only be thought of by such a man, in Roman terms. Augustine will use the word `Punic' to describe the native dialects which most countrymen would have spoken exclusively, and which many townsmen shared with Latin. This was not because such men spoke the language of the ancient Carthaginians. Rather Augustine, an educated man, would instinctively apply this, the traditional, undifferentiated term, to any language spoken in North Africa that did not happen to be Latin.
Yet, even the fully Latinized African of the fourth century remained somewhat alien. The opinion of the outside world was unanimous. Africa, in their opinion, was wasted on the Africans.
In the days of their swaggering affluence in the second and third centuries, Roman culture had taken a significantly different turn in their hands. They strike us as `Baroque' rather than classical men. The gifted African for instance, delighted in the sheer play of words, in puns, rhymes and riddles: as a bishop, Augustine will be hugely admired by his congregation, for being superbly able to provide a display of verbal fireworks. Such a man needed controversy. He throve on self-justification. He aimed to impress his fellows by eccentric turns of phrase, by vivid and far-fetched similes. At the age of seventy, this very African fire would still burn strong in Augustine: an opponent had seemed to concede a point out of sheer embarrassment. `Why, it looks as if your very ink had turned to rouge!' The mosaics such men commissioned were bright, full of minutely observed details of daily life, a little grotesque. Men like these could write novels: an unfailing eye for detail, for the picaresque, and an interest in the stirrings of the heart have ensured that the only two books of Latin literature that a modern man can place with ease beside the fiction of today were written by Africans — the Golden Ass of Apuleius and ... The Confessions of Augustine. Augustine had been encouraged to weep gloriously at the tale of Dido and Aeneas, a very African interlude in the life of the upright founder of Rome; and it is an African poet who will rectify the omissions of Vergil by writing the love letters of the deserted queen.
The great African writers, however, were sudden meteors. The average African was more notorious as a lawyer. Augustine might have become one: `that's a great thing, to have eloquence wielding great power, to have clients hanging on every word of the well-turned speech of their protector, pinning their hopes on his mouth....' Like the litigious country-gentlemen of the Elizabethan age, the `good farmer' in Africa had, also, to be `skilled in the law of the courts'; and, as among the Elizabethans, a dry, fierce legalism, a passionate dedication to manipulating the public forms of life by argument in the courtroom, was an effective complement, in the many, to fantasy and sensibility in the few. At exactly the same time, the leaders of the Christian church in Africa had imported this vigorous growth into their own controversies. A legal culture, hardheaded and relentless, had proliferated in its new clerical environment. Viewed by an Italian bishop who knew him well and heartily disliked his theology, Augustine was merely the latest example of an all-too-familiar figure, the Poenus orator, `the African man of law'.
Augustine, however, decided that he would rather be a schoolmaster. In this also, the Africans had shown their characteristic gusto. They worshipped education: simple men would cover their tombs with inscriptions in bad verse; the grandson of a Moorish soldier would boast that he was now `a professor of Roman letters'; another had called himself `the Cicero' of his little town. In Africa, Roman education had meant status for a crowd of little men. It was an atmosphere hostile to genuine talent. In Aquitaine and Upper Egypt, the fourth and fifth centuries were marked by sudden 'explosions' of literary talent. In Africa, by contrast, the dust of erudition settled heavily on innumerable classical text-books, written by African professors. Such men could pronounce `homo' correctly; one would write a book on `The Marriage of Mercury and Philology'; another would prove his superiority to Augustine by taking him to task for writing `Donatist' when the educated man said `Donatian'. Somehow, the superabundant energies of the second and third centuries had come to a halt: the Africa of the fourth century had become a stagnant and affluent backwater.
In Thagaste at least, these sons Of a dour and impoverished petty gentry would stick together, in their early life, in a common pursuit of advancement. Behind the single biography of Augustine we can also glimpse this `collective biography' — the destinies of a remarkable group of young men determined to escape the inertia of a small African town. Many such friends were to stick together throughout their lives; the clique of earnest students was to become, in their middle age, a formidable group of bishops, controlling the destinies of the Catholic church in Africa. Dulcissimus concivis: `my dearest friend, a fellow-townsman', this phrase, used by Augustine as a bishop, will carry the ancient language of Roman public life into the new world of the Catholic hierarchy.
Yet, in the generation of Augustine, these old patterns were failing to satisfy men. The rich landowner, the adventurous student, the litigious bishop still had to `sail away' to Italy from time to time: navigare is a constant theme in Augustine's works. But they would not find their ambitions so easily satisfied. All the ambitious young men of Thagaste will return to spend the rest of their lives in a thoroughly provincial setting, as the bishops of small African towns. For the Emperors had no need for the services of these Southerners. They had to stand guard over a threatened Northern frontier. Their court moved with the armies between Gaul, Northern Italy and the Danubian provinces. Africa, for them, was merely a reliable source of taxes, the heavily-administered granary of Rome. The men of Thagaste, Romanianus and his little band of clients, would find themselves not wanted: like the Anglo-Irish of the late eighteenth century, these representatives of a highly-civilized and prosperous society found themselves condemned to see their country sink to the state of a mere `colony', administered by strangers from across the sea.
Times had changed. In the fourth century the Roman Empire was facing the strain of perpetual warfare. It was the prey of barbarian warbands in the North, challenged by the well-organized and militaristic kingdom of Persia in the East. The Emperors patrolled its frontiers at the head of regiments of heavy cavalry. They were acclaimed, with an enthusiasm that mounted with every disaster, as 'the Ever-Victorious', `the Restorers of the World'. Taxation had doubled, even trebled, within living memory. The poor were victimized by an insane inflation. The rich defended themselves by unparalleled accumulations of property. The Emperor himself became a remote and awe-inspiring figure. His edicts were written in gold on purple paper; they were received with reverently covered hands, `adored', and usually, circumvented. His servants could only rule by terror. A self-respecting man such as Patricius, coming from a class accustomed to being the unquestioned leaders of their locality, would find himself dwarfed by the great nouveaux riches and bullied by Imperial officials. He would have been threatened by the most ominous symptom of all in a civilized society: by a spectacular brutalization of the penal law. He could be flogged. An offence against the Emperor or his servants might bring ruin on a whole community of respectable burghers: it might leave them maimed by torture, reduced to the ranks of the beggars by crippling fines.
Yet, as so often happens, this world on the edge of dissolution, had settled down to believe that it would last forever. The Jeremiahs of the declining Roman Empire will appear only in Augustine's old age; one cannot but be struck by the optimism of the men of Augustine's youth. Inscriptions in Africa will talk of `golden times everywhere', of `the youthful vigour of the Roman name'. A Christian bishop will regard Christianity and Roman civilization as coterminous: as if any Christian virtue could exist among the barbarians! A poetic administrator could write that Rome `by living long has learnt to scorn finality'. Rome, indeed, was still the `Middle Kingdom'. For as in ancient China, educated men knew of no other civilized state. The Roman Empire was still upheld by the unquestioning loyalty of a class resembling the `Mandarins' of Imperial China, by cultivated senators and bureaucrats whose ranks the young Augustine hoped to join.
Yet it is exactly in this aspect of Roman life that the most profound change of all had happened. The old patterns of Roman civilized life no longer entirely satisfied the cultivated man. They would even dress differently. The impeccable Roman toga, for instance, would still appear on statues of officials and great men. But the great men themselves would have worn a dress as flamboyant as any worn in the Arabian Nights: a tight tunic reaching down to the knees, heavily embroidered at the hems; bright stockings; a huge cloak pinned above the right shoulder with a clasp of barbarian origin, its billowing silk sewn with gold thread, decorated with panels of colour appropriate to the rank of the wearer, or with figures, with flying dragons, and in the case of pious Christians, with scenes from the Bible. Nor would they have lived in the houses of the past, built foursquare around a courtyard; but in intricate palaces, bright with inlaid marble and rainbow-coloured mosaics, built from the inside out, to convey by their arcades, by halls on different levels, domed ceilings and a proliferation of heavy curtains, a new sense of privacy and opulent mystery. The expressions of Late Roman men, on their statues, often betray the most far-reaching change of all. These are no longer realistic portraits: their upraised eyes and immobile, lengthened features, show a preoccupation with the other world, with the inner life, that we would associate more readily with a Romanesque saint.
For the young Augustine, the traditional life will be only a veneer. At the height of his career as a professor of classical rhetoric, part of him at least, will listen to the teachings of Mani, a Persian visionary. His life will be changed by reading the works of Plotinus: a philosopher `(who) seemed ashamed of being in the body'. A great pagan senator, Praetextatus, will speak of his traditional Roman titles as `bankrupt', of his mystical initiations as `true blessedness'.
Ambrose, sent to Milan as a Roman governor, will be ordained there as its Catholic bishop. Another nobleman, Paulinus, will suddenly disappear from the sheltered life of Aquitaine, to become a monk, leaving his friend, the old professor, Ausonius, puzzled. These incidents are omens for Augustine's future; he will be a traditional schoolmaster for eleven years of his life; a monk and a bishop for the remaining forty-four. As S. Jerome wrote of a small child in this new age: `In such a world Pacatula has been born. Disasters surround her as she plays. She will know of weeping before laughter.... She forgets the past; she flees the present; she awaits with eagerness the life to come.'